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Personal Reflections from an Imperfect Pen

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Location: New Mexico

Publications: Japji Sahib: The Song of the Soul by Guru Nanak translated by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa. Anand Sahib: The Song of Bliss by Guru Amar Das translated by Ek Ong Kaar Kaur Khalsa. Available through www.sikhdharma.org.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


A father’s eyes are the first mirror that a woman knows.

The eyes of her beloved are the second.

Every other mirror in a woman’s life is for her to pre-measure herself and assess what she will look like in those sets of eyes. Correcting something. Hiding something. Enhancing something. Because the mirror on the wall is not conscious, not sentient. It is safe and lifeless, without comment, a mute reflection for critical self-examination, to help her prepare for the moment when she presents herself before the mirrors that matter most.

The eyes that frown or smile or look disappointed and dismissive. The eyes that love, with affection, projecting pride and fierce protection. The way she is reflected in the face of her father and the face of her beloved gives her a sense of who she is in the world.

One day when I was a young girl, my father (who tended to be a stern and demanding type, intimidating but with a heart of gold) sat with me on the front porch. It was a priceless moment, just the two of us, and he was in a rare contemplative mood. We cozied together on the bench, his arm around me, watching a small spider slowly and steadfastly make its way up a tiny silk thread. The thread was suspended from the porch ceiling. After watching the spider in silence for a while, my father finally spoke. “Do you think it knows?” he wondered out-loud. “Do you think that spider actually knows where it’s going?” And then he started rambling, about how could the spider know where it was going? Yet there it was making all that effort to create the thread and climb it, without any certainty of what it would find at the end. His words made me feel both close to him and uncomfortable. My father always knew the answers to everything (or at least pretended he did), and here he was, not knowing something. But in that moment on the porch, watching the spider, I felt that he was sharing something special with me. Some part of him that was always there, but that he kept hidden below the surface.

Men are hard to understand. And the good ones are the hardest. On the surface, there is this hard-boiled attitude that comes from having to find and hold your place, defend your territory, maintain your position. There is also the urge to keep exploring and expanding, seeing what’s out there, what’s new. And then the need to have some kind of home base he can always come back to. It’s not just the hunt that’s important. It’s having people who love him. People who will listen to the story of how he caught the “big one” or how the sucker got away.

When I was a young girl, my dad traveled all over the world for business. Some of the best memories of my childhood were when he came home, and he would tell us the stories of where he’d been. Meeting the Prime Minister of Brazil or having lunch with Prince Edwards and Princess Grace after closing a sale of television equipment for Monaco TV. Stories of how he and his team figured out how to break through the outer citadel of low-level executives to finally get a meeting with the high-level ones in Japan. (Long before there were any classes in business school about how to do it.) Hong Kong and England; France, Germany, Belguim. Other countries whose names I couldn’t remember. Some of those stories were dark. Watching people demonstrate on the street, being massacred by their governments, and no mention of it on the local news that night. Being in Central America when the President of the US passed some policy that caused mob rioting in the streets. My dad and his team faked English accents to get out of the country in one piece. Stories of the world, and my dad would often say, “Every time I land in the USA and get out of the airplane, I want to kiss the ground. You have no idea how good we have it here.”

When I was in the 8th grade, he finally let me look through his passport. And I thought to myself – how cool it would be to go to all of these places one day.

He worked really hard, and provided for his family. The main thing that he asked in return was that we would be a good audience when he wanted to tell his stories, or that we would listen when he wanted to share his advice.

“Never turn down someone’s advice,” he used to say. “It’s the only thing in life that’s free. Everything else in life costs you something. Experience is a bitch. It gives you the test before it gives you the lesson.”

But even though that outer world of a man is important, his achievements define his identity in so many ways, there is still something subtle and sensitive and deep going on underneath. It never comes out directly. If you try to get him to show it to you, he never will. But sometimes, if you watch carefully, it comes out sideways. In completely unpredictable moments. A deep questioning and probing into the nature of life. Not just trying to find his place in society, but his place in the Universe.

It was in those sideway moments that my father and I connected the most.

I think the concept of God must be very difficult for a man because it means there is permanently something higher than himself. He can never ever get to the top of the totem pole if he truly believes in God. The gift of faith is a sense of humility. A respect that there are certain rules you have to play by if you want to win the Big Game. My dad played by those rules, but he sometimes wondered if it was real. “There better be a God when I die,” he would fume from time to time. “Because if there’s not, I am going to be really pissed.”

“Don’t worry,” I would say to him. “There’s a God.”

Last Christmas, while driving around together, he started talking to me about friends and peers that he’d seen die of cancer. How quickly it could happen – one day they were there, the next day they were gone. He was talking to himself as much as to me, but then he shot me a measured look. “There’s something after this, right? ” he asked. “Yes, Dad,” I assured him. “There is definitely something after this.”

Mirrors. Reflections. It’s the hardest thing. In high school the big fights between my father and I started. Looking back, the fights really had less to do with us as people and more to do with the profound social changes that had happened between the time my mother was in high school and when I went. In my mother’s day, you either trained to be a teacher or a nurse; or you got married. That was it. When I went to high school, the sky was the limit. So the fights began because my father wanted me to take classes that would prepare me for my future. Only he was stuck in a very old idea of what the future could be. “Why are you taking chemistry, physics, and calculus?” he would yell. “You should be taking typing and short-hand instead so you can get a job as a secretary when you graduate!” When I wanted to study Latin, he said no way. “You study French. Latin is for boys - boys who are studying to be priests. It’s a dead language. Learn how to speak French – that’s a good language for girls.” I hated French.

When it came to college, he summed it up perfectly when he once said, “Bernadette and I fought World Wars 3, 4 5 and 6 over her going to college.” It was an accurate description. For months, we couldn’t be in the same room without their being either a thick tension or an outright shouting match. And with my father, the ex-marine, those shouting matches could become very intense. I was a straight A student, graduating in the top 5 of my class. I had been accepted to a prestigious Texas college – Rice University. I was going to college, and that is where I was going. Whether he liked it or not. Whether he would pay for it or not – that’s what I was going to do. In the end, my mother quietly intervened on my side, seeing that the fight could have torn us all apart. So I got my way. But not without scars.

When I was 20, and home for the summer, there was a Newsweek article about the top universities in the country. Rice University was listed as one of them, and described as one of the best colleges for the money. I’d made the honor roll every semester. One Friday night, my dad picked me up from the restaurant where I was waitressing as a summer job. He had a few at the bar before closing, and when we got back to the house somehow it ended up being the two of us alone. We sat in the kitchen, talking. He was a little bit tipsy. I can’t remember all of his rambling, but at one point he stopped and looked me square in the eyes. “You know,” he said his eyes hard and bright. “All those fights we had about you going to college. I just want you to know. You were right.”

The eyes of a father teach a girl about herself. It’s the first impression she has of what about her is acceptable or not. What about her is loveable or not. At least, that’s how I experienced it. In the end, I think the deeper truth is that many fathers deeply love their daughters no matter what. But loving a daughter doesn’t mean that he is necessarily comfortable with her all the time. Some moments, perhaps, are more comfortable than others. As a child, you think – he’s angry. There’s something wrong with me that I have to change or I have to fix. It’s only when you get much older that you start to see- the situation is just a lot more complicated than that.

The day before my father died, he asked to see a priest. It had been many years since he had gone to church, but that’s the way it is with Catholics. If you’re born with it, and raised with it, there is a primal longing to die with it. My father had recently been diagnosed with cancer, himself, and was deteriorating at a very rapid pace. He couldn’t lift his head or roll himself on the bed. The nurses had to do it for him. After the priest left, I went into his hospital room and held his hand. We did a lot of that the last week of his life. Hand holding. He would grab it and not let go.

“Did you talk to him? Did you, your mother and your sister get to talk to the priest?”

“No,” I said. “He said only a few words to us and left.”

“That’s a shame. I liked him. You would have liked talking to him.”

He paused for a few moments. “No one really knows what happens when you die,” he said. “You can’t know. You just take the cards you’re dealt in life and you play the best hand you can.”

Tears started to cloud my eyes. “Well, I think you played your hand great, Dad.”

He laughed a weak laugh. “I don’t know about that, Bernadette,” he said. “But I’ll tell you this much. It’s been a hell of a ride.”

He stopped talking, and I stood there next to him, his hand in mine, crying quietly, my heart saying over and over again, “I am going to miss you so much when you are gone. I am going to miss you so much.”

We transferred him to hospice that day, and early the next morning, he took a turn for the worse. During the last few hours, his eyes were rolled up in his head – like the way the yogis look when they are focusing on the 10th gate. His breath was hard, and deep and long, like he was in labor, and I was struck with how similar the physical process of birth and death can be. My mom and I were sitting on opposite sides of him, whispering to him and helping him along. At one point, I don’t know why, but I said matter-of-factly, “It’s OK. You can go if you need to go.”

For the first time all morning, he rolled his eyes down and sideways and looked directly at me. It was so odd. His blue eyes had gone grey and filmy. You could see the soul light in them – but it was already so distant, so far away. It was a look that was completely piercing and penetrating, and yet – it almost wasn’t there at all. Pure spirit - his spirit to mine with nothing in between. And I could tell that what I was saying in that moment was really really important to him.

I knew what I needed to do. I smiled a big smile, tried to look as secure and relaxed as possible, and encouraged him. “It’s OK. You can go. We’re going to be fine. Don’t worry. You can go if it’s time for you to go. You’re going on a great adventure.”

After smiling and cheering him on for a minute or so, he sighed, and his eyes rolled back in his head, looking at the tenth gate. Something in him relaxed. I kept praying softly in his ear. Within a couple of minutes he was gone.

Identity and reality. What we know, what we guess, what we don’t know. The way that we are here for each other regardless of the details. The last time that I looked in my father’s eyes, there was something pure and naked, powerful and innocent. It was a gift to see his soul like that, and to realize that all along, throughout our lives, his soul was always struggling to be seen by me, just as my soul was always struggling to be seen by him. If it took the moment of death for our spirits to achieve that communion, then I feel we were very blessed. The mirror and reflection between us, by Guru’s grace, arrived at that Infinite point.

After all, nothing ever ends. The connections we have with each other keep going, evolving, transforming, and growing. About 5 minutes after he died, I felt his subtle body pull me into a hug, saying thank you for helping me through.

In the days and weeks since my father passed away, I have been missing his presence. Once I was grown up and on my own, we only saw each other once a year, and spoke on the phone once a month. I never knew that there was some part of me, deep in my subconscious, that was always connected to him. Now that his physical body is gone, that reassuring connection is gone, too. But it doesn’t leave me empty. In place of the connection is a plethora of memories that reveal new secrets the more of life I understand. The mirror of him is still in my mind. And I am so grateful to have experienced, at the end, how the love overwhelmed everything else, and cast a golden light over all of the memories that I hold of him forever.

In memoriam: James Anthony Gillece. January 19, 1938 – September 2, 2009.

Your loving daughter,

Ek Ong Kaar Kaur aka Bernadette